Ironies of Comfort, Familiarity

Alain de Botton ignites my soul. Every line in his traveler’s manifesto, The Art of Travel, has me nodding my head, biting my nails, scribbling frantic responses in the margins as I read on feeling validated, awed, inspired, humbled and humiliated by my own solidarity with his words. Botton describes with painful and beautiful accuracy the sensations of traveling alone and lingering in places of eternal transience: hotels, diners, train stations, gas stations, airports.  I am not alone as I read:

Continue reading “Ironies of Comfort, Familiarity”

Is Writing Selfish? Or Is It Service?

When trying to live a life of service to God and to others, what room is there for egotism? Where does egotism end and our God-given gifts begin?

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I’ve been state-side for one month now, with little to occupy my time other than my own thoughts and the warm comfort of friends and family. As I sit in my little, cluttered home, replete with dog hair and worn-down magazines, I think and pray a lot, maybe too much, about my own future.

I long to continue my education, which leads most well meaning folks to ask me, “what do you want to do as a career?” My usual response is “I don’t know,” which elicits sighs and confusion, mostly from myself.

The truth is, I think I do know, but I don’t feel like admitting it. I want to write. And read. And study. As a career. That seems like something that’s impossible to exhaust…study. One man can’t ever know everything so how much more can we use this life to learn? I think now of one of my favorite little memoirs, Twenty Years A Growin,’ where the narrator gleans this advice to me:

“What good are you unless you study and travel the world while you are in it?”

I take these words to heart and often feel that there’s so much to see and do and learn that I couldn’t ever possibly choose just one path and stick to it. But maybe this is just naivete.

As I contemplate the possible paths before me, I try to see into the future and imagine what would be required of me in a certain setting. How much of myself would I be required to give? How much of myself would I have to die to? In the Christian context, walking with Christ means dying to yourself, taking up your cross (your burdens–see Pilgrim’s Progress) and following Christ.

But how much of me is what I need to die to, and how much of me is given by God to fulfill?

If God gave me a talent for writing or speaking (not saying He did, but I’m certainly no accountant), then shouldn’t I use it for Him? But writing is a very personal activity, and these days I feel like I’m spending too much time alone, in my own head, instead of being present with others.

How much of me needs to die to be filled up instead with Christ?

It’s easy to discern external sins: avarice, greed, addiction, egotism, things that we all struggle with. Sometimes our failings manifest themselves externally in our relationships with others, our addictions to material things, or something else. But sometimes they sink deep inside our skin, and we don’t realize they are there until we try to break ourselves free and instead feel chained to our own sloth, our own internal egotism that sits quietly beneath our breath.

Is this my cross?

If it is, how can I follow Jesus on a path that would confront me with more of the same…the long, solitary afternoons, alone with my books and my thoughts? Our thoughts can sometimes betray us.

Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit. I’m not a hermit…not yet, anyway, and I do love the great outdoors. It’s just that sometimes I love my pajamas more.

Is writing an inherently selfish endeavor? A good writer writes with an audience in mind, with a story to tell, with an argument to posit. Sometimes I just write because I can’t sit still unless I do. Oh, the novelty.

I wonder what it would be like to follow a path of academia, of writing and thinking and listening and learning and trying to convince others I’m right when I secretly know I’m not. Or what if I know I am? Maybe that’s even worse. Or maybe academia, like any other path, is not about being right or wrong but about growing and discovering and being present with others as you walk the road together. Is that naivete again?

What do you think, sage bloggers or writers? How do you reconcile your time in your head with your time serving others? Is writing selfish, or is it a form of service?

Being ‘Miss Rumphius’

Glacier National Park and environs Gardens in front of East Glacier Lodge.
lupine flowers in full bloom

I’m not a parent, so I can’t say much about what makes “good parenting,” but I can tell you this: we read so many books as kids, and those books, with their poetry and pictures, still stick like stamps firmly in my mind.

The picture books especially remain close to my heart. Perhaps this is why I am a visual learner. Or, maybe I remember these books because I was too young to stay up late listening to my dad read The Hobbit to my older siblings. I still listened through the wall between my bedroom and the living room, but again, only pictures of scenes remain in my mind from that time.

There were many whose watercolors captivated me. My mother would read these books to me at bedtime, and I would half-listen as I lost myself in a sea of soft pastels. The books of Barbara Berger: Grandfather Twilight, When the Sun Rose, and The Donkey’s Dream were three of my regular favorites.  I loved falling asleep, dreaming of beautiful twilights and sunrises and friendships and visits. Thanks, Mrs. Berger, for giving me sweet dreams 🙂

A page from Grandfather Twilight, by Barbara Berger. (Philomel Books, NY, 1984).

But perhaps one of my very favorite childhood books, one that, as an adult, I find myself going back to in my mind again and again, is Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius.

Miss Rumphius has a more involved plot than Berger’s books, and the main character’s journey along with the pictures, still captivates my heart.

The story is about a little girl who grows up and travels the world.

As a child, travelling far from home was never something I thought I could do; not because I was not capable, but I just didn’t think it was real. The places I read about in Miss Rumphius seemed like wonderful fantasies to me, like The Shire in Tolkein’s The Hobbit.

When I first moved to Israel, I felt this same captivation with every step I took. Every rock, every tree, every bus stop and plant and bowl of hummus was unique, precious, and undeniably extraordinary. Israel felt like a present God had given me to step outside of my own skin and into the pages of my favorite adventure story.

Of course, the unpleasant realities of politics and social clashes brought me out of that dream bubble, and I struggled with this clashing of my dreams and my reality the whole five and a half months I was there. But that’s a different story…

I always admired Miss Rumphius, not because she traveled, but because travel was not her ultimate goal. Miss Rumphius, in my opinion, was the first real backpacker. In the story, she hikes the Himalayas with a guide, rides camels in Egypt to the pyramids, and meets a local village elder on some tropical beach, somewhere in the world. She didn’t just lie on a beach getting seriously suntanned for two weeks and then go home (guilty as charged).

A page from Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. Viking Books, 1982. The house on stilts in the background resembles traditional homes in many parts of the world today.

Don’t get me wrong–every once and a while, relaxing on a beach for a week in the sun can be a glorious thing. But my point is that all these places she visited, people she met, and adventures she had were real. They were not fantasies. They were very real experiences that await many travelers today. But there’s something about her poise and grace that always fascinated me. Maybe it had to with the fact that she rode that camel side saddle and wearing a girdle. (Did I forget to mention that the book is set a century ago?) Or maybe, as a woman in 1915, it would have been nearly impossible for her to do what she did. But in the book, she did it. And she did by her own fortitude.

Yet, she also had the wisdom to come back to her own corner of the world after her travels were finished. In the story, Miss Rumphius becomes a librarian (probably yet another reason why I love this book).

And then she grows old.  And she lives in a house by the sea.

But before she passes away, she has something left to do. In the story, her grandfather told Miss Rumphius these words as a little girl:

You must do something to make the world more beautiful.

So she does. She rides her bike through her little seaside town and scatters lupine seeds everywhere, so that, come next spring, fields of lupine flowers suddenly spring up all over town.

Have you ever seen lupine flowers?

I love them, because they are wild and free and vibrant. Just like Miss Rumphius.

 Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. Viking Books, 1982.

Summer: Take Three

It’s amazing how quickly my work ethic goes out the window as soon as I have no more pending assignments.

Case in point: on the third day of being college-free, I decided that, instead of sleeping until noon again, I would get up at nine thirty to make it to a ten thirty cycle class at the gym. I made it on time, but there was no one in the class, probably because most people actually, um, work during the day. Not me, of course. I’m not an adult yet. But instead of using the machines, I decided, well, I gave it the old college try (pun intended), so I may as well go home, which is exactly what I did. I came home, put my pajamas back on, and got back in to bed where I belong.

Can I just point out how giggly it makes me that I can use so many commas and conjunctions and not get penalized for them?? Hah! Take that, college.

While I was lying in bed at 11 am, I had the divine inspiration that I should start blogging again, because I just have so many thoughts that it would be a shame not to share them with my four blog readers (who may or may not be related to me and thus subject to all my insane ramblings anyway…) I have about seven weeks vacation where I have virtually no obligations (minus a few fun projects and some less-than-amusing paperwork jobs), which reminds me of that sacred time two and a half years ago when I took a semester off of school and got really into blogging, reading, and cooking, which I’m still really into but less devoted to these days. That happens when you live in a place with no an oven and you have research papers to write that end up being really God awful. But that’s another story.

So, I thought I would kick-start this vacation blog adventure with another summer reading list. You may (but most likely won’t, because you didn’t know I had a blog) recall that two summers ago (yep, two summers ago…wow…) I made another reading list that I almost successfully finished. I gave up on Crime and Punishment, not because I don’t love Doestoevsky, but because I couldn’t stand getting inside a criminal’s head like that. I suppose this is why I also despised Lolita and I hate watching CSI. Just seems too real. But I made up for it last summer by reading The Brothers Karamazov, which I recommend to everyone and your little dog, too.

So, what’s on the agenda for the next seven weeks? My mom gave me this book, The Reluctant Tuscan, because she is obsessed with Italy and I am obsessed with food. It likens itself to this book, Bella Tuscany, sequel to Under the Tuscan Sun (which I’ve never read), and a million other books on the glories of Tuscan living.

The Reluctant Tuscan reads rather quickly, which is great, because I’m still exercising my attention span. On top of that, I want to finish the books I started over winter break:

Cooked, the newest Michael Pollan manifesto
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
The Pickwick Papers by good ole Mr. Dickens

Additionally, I really hope to merge this blog into a new host site, because I must continue to chronicle my life. As the days pass on, I will explain more what my future holds. But for now, I leave you with this promise, that I shall sleep till noon, read till five, and drink till nine. And blog about it 🙂

-Mel

P.S–What are some of your favorite summer reads? I am always looking for suggestions.

Summer Reading

When I was in grade school, there was nothing I abhorred more than assigned summer reading. I’m not even sure why, though I think it has something to do with the fact that I don’t like being told what to do. It could also have stemmed from the complex that my mom loves to call “expecting to be a prodigy” without putting in the time, which is completely true. But more than anything, I avoided summer reading like the plague. I remember how sweet those first few May days of freedom felt, when school was done and I could wander about the house completely weightless, turning on the television or rolling around on the carpet or sitting on the balcony for hours with my stuffed animals. Ah, summer! 
And then inevitably, a few hours later, came that infamous complaint: “I’m booooooooored.” 
“Why don’t you start reading one of your summer reading books?”
……
“Just kidding, I’m not bored anymore.”
And the cycle continued, through June and July, through picnics and summer camps and family vacations and car rides. 
“Mel, why don’t you do some reading for a few hours.”
“I can’t, I have to perfect my witches broom” or simply, “No, I don’t want to” without any better excuse.
I still don’t understand why I was so obstinate. I was a fairly imaginative kid, and I did read a lot, but I read a lot of fantasy and then as I got older, that horrible bastard child of fiction, Teen Fiction. I wish I had had better taste as a youngster!

All this is to say, that when I spent last semester off, I essentially forced myself to read, because I was convinced that nothing could be a more productive use of otherwise useless time. And I still believe that. And now I’m in love with reading. (Hear that, Papa!)

And so once again, I find myself with very few responsibilities, something that I don’t handle very well. And once again, I said my prayers, read Psalm 103, took a shower, and remembered that God is in control…I am not. As obvious as it seems, for me it is very easy to forget that God is ultimate and I am small. For a long period of time, when I was coming back to Christianity and Orthodoxy, I immersed myself in philosophy and theology because I needed to logically arrive at the paradoxical conclusions of Christian faith. And I have grown stronger in my faith, much stronger, and I feel completely overwhelmed with love and gratitude for that faith that God has given me.
But now comes another challenge, less philosophical and far more practical (which I have trouble with as is): how does one carry this faith in one’s heart inside a world as bent and broken and narcissistic as ours? Essentially, how does one keep the faith? I hear in my head the usual responses: prayers, fasting, alms giving. It seems so simple. But how can one remember one’s own limitations when this world is choking us and pleading with us to become larger than life?
Once again, I turn to CS Lewis. The Screwtape Letters became my mantra for getting me through last semester, and now I find Perelandra a beautiful, if not horribly authentic, painting of our own God-complexes:

“‘But how could anyone love anything more? It is like saying a thing could be bigger than itself.’
‘I only meant you could become more like the women of my world.’
‘What are they like?’
‘They are of a great spirit. They always reach out their hands for the new and unexpected food, and see that it is good long before the men understand it. Their minds run ahead of what Maleldil [God] has told them. They do not need to wait for Him to tell them what is good, but know if for themselves as He does. They are, as it were, little Maleldils.'” 

The more I read of Dr. Weston and he egoistic God-complex, the more I shudder and become nauseous, not because what he is saying sounds so foreign, but because it sounds so real! I can’t stand the fact that I understand exactly what he is saying.
But I suppose this is one of the many, many beautiful gifts we receive as readers. We go outside of ourselves and enter the worlds of others, and inside those worlds we find wonders and parallels that we otherwise would never have known. And there is no better way to go on adventure without ever leaving your back yard. 
So, with that, I list my own, slightly grown up summer reading list, to the perseverance of knowledge and hopefully humbling of self:

Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, books two and three of The Space Trilogy by CS Lewis
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, recommended, ironically, by my English professor

I also have several books on the history of Israel as well as a Go Israel tour book that will make for some delicious twelve hour plain reading.

Praise ye the name of the Lord. All ye works, praise the Lord. Alleluia!

Recipe for Enjoying a Weekday Afternoon, September Style

September is a fickle month in the Mid-South. Mother Nature can’t quite make up her mind whether the season is summer or fall. The air is crisp and clean and definitely open widow friendly, and yet the sun is still hot enough to make you yearn for a swim in your newly closed pool after a short jog. 
In the midst of worrying my face off that I’ll never be accepted back in to school, I am learning to read again–for pleasure, for fun, for “staycation” sake. 


Afternoon Coffee:
Serves one 
One cup (a real cup, not the American oversized bathtub mugs that give you digestion problems) freshly brewed strong coffee (I use Seattle’s Best, level 5)
One or two splashes half and half
One peppermint candy

Combine ingredients in your reasonably sized mug. Serve with a book and a Grannamae cookie. Use as fuel for your newly rediscovered passion for writing:

Always, Always…
Always, always, bliss on paper. A book and a warm mint coffee? Nothing better. It used to be I could not read, I would not read. Reading merely passed time when I was not consciously doing something we like to call “productive.” My eyes would merely skim the words while my brain ran laps, thinking volatility of the tasks I had not yet completed, the people I had not yet impressed, the weight I had not yet lost. Now on temporary leave from school, after an hour of computer time I feel my energy drain away, so I quickly stand up to shake myself. What to do now? My “tasks” can only go so far in one day, so I decide to read for a few hours–outside I go, with my new friend Frances Mayes:
“How to quantify happiness? Any loved house you’ve personally slaved over feels like an extension of yourself. Many people have told me that when they arrived in Italy, they’ve surprised themselves by thinking, I’m home. I, too, had that sensation when I first came here. By now, that feeling has magnified. And, as for a loved one, I have that scarier feeling, I can’t be without you. Meanwhile, the house just stands here, indifferent, facing the changing light and weather.”
I smile, and I can’t stop smiling, because I love reading stories of triumph over self, of succumbing to the natural order of time and space. I love that I know that I am enough to be happy–to exist within the close confines of happiness. I close my eyes and drink in the clear sky above me, the sky I feel was made just for me today. I want to stay with it forever, under the Tuscan sun like Frances. I wish I could. I know I can’t, at least not yet–I am too young. I am ripe, and my duties in this world are numerous. I face years of overcoming challenges, meeting people, moving forward. I have degrees to earn, pictures to take, many tears to shed, cuts to bleed, God willing. And children to foster. That is just fine with me.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…”